September 20, 2013

MPAA Online Piracy Study Uses Flawed Methodology

Jerry Brito

Former Senior Research Fellow
Summary

The Motion Picture Association of America recently issued a report analyzing the role of search engines in online piracy. According to the study, online searches "influenced" 20 percent of sessions in which consumers accessed infringing TV or movies.
In a new blog post, Mercatus Center senior research fellow Jerry Brito questions the methodology used in the study, such as the broad definition of "qualifying search queiries."

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The Motion Picture Association of America recently issued a report analyzing the role of search engines in online piracy. According to the study, online searches "influenced" 20 percent of sessions in which consumers accessed infringing TV or movies.

In a new blog post, Mercatus Center senior research fellow Jerry Brito questions the methodology used in the study, such as the broad definition of "qualifying search queiries."

"If you searched simply for the title of any movie or TV show, then the clock started ticking, and if you hit an infringing URL within 20 minutes, you're path to that URL was deemed influenced by the search engine. I don't know about most users, but I probably visit a search engine more than once every 20 minutes. If one is a film and TV enthusiast, I wonder if the influence shot clock wouldn't be constantly ticking."

"...This methodology ... implicitly puts search engines on the hook not just for linking directly to infringing content (for which there is a notice-and-takedown process available), but also for 'influencing the path' that a user takes on their web travels. As we all know, correlation is not causation. So it's not clear to me that because I searched for 'transformers' 15 minutes before I visited the URL for a pirate stream of Game of Thrones, that necessarily means that the search engine influenced me in any way [or is] responsible for my behavior."

The report also analyzes the impact of recent changes to Google's search algorithym, which penalizes websites based on the number of copyright removal notices it receives. According to the study, the new algorithym did not change the percentage of direct referrals from Google to the sites in question. But that does not take into account whether the site's total traffic has changed.

"What might be more interesting than the percent of direct referrals is the total number of direct referrals. After all, the percent of referrals could remain at 10 percent, but if the total traffic to those sites decreases as a result of the algorithmic change, that would be a success."